Defining Black

Posted in Latest Developments on February 6, 2004

When R&D did the exercise a couple of years ago of re-examining the “color pie,” we did it in two separate stages. First, the flavor experts debated and clarified exactly what each color stood for, and how they related to each other. Mark did an excellent job on Monday of showing off the results of that process by introducing you to the philosophy behind the color black and the flavor that black cards are intended to have*. The second stage of our color pie discussion was to look at all of Magic’s mechanics and examine the way they were divided up between the five colors. The two big goals for that second stage were 1) to make sure that each color had its fair share of mechanics and 2) to make sure that each color’s mechanics were consistent with the newly clarified flavor pie. In this article I’d like to look at how black’s mechanics look now that that conversation is over.

We started out by adding up all the mechanics that each color had accumulated over the previous history of the game and examining how evenly they were divided. There’s no really precise metric that you can use for counting up mechanics, of course. Some mechanics are simply a lot bigger than others so what we tried to do was figure out how many cards we thought was appropriate for each mechanic in an average block. The real point of this exercise, after all, is to make sure that we can continue to design new Magic cards in the future and that means each color should have about the same amount of potential to draw from.

As I’ve discussed in previous columns, our initial conclusion was that blue had the most stuff – way more than it’s fair share of mechanics – and so we moved a bunch of things out of blue. The other color that we felt had more than 20% of the mechanics pie was black. Eyeballing our lists of mechanics, black seemed to have a bunch of very meaty mechanics (creature destruction, discard, suicide black weenies, fatties with drawbacks, fast mana, etc.) but more importantly, our designers reported that black was always a very easy color to design for. It had so much going on that design files typically wound up with really good black cards getting squeezed out while designers were struggling to figure out what else they could put into red.

When we looked for stuff to move out of black, we knew we had to have a lot of respect for the past and also for the newly clarified flavor pie. Drain Life, for example, is (in part) a life gaining mechanic, and life gaining isn’t a black mechanic; but the flavor of draining life is so perfect for black that we left it in (though we did clarify that this should be the only way black ever gets to gain life – it has to take it from somewhere else). Similarly, green is the best color at using the graveyard as a resource but Raise Dead is such perfect flavor for black (and has such history in black) that we left it alone.

The two biggest things that we did move out of black were temporary fast mana (aka “Dark Ritual”) and temporary power boosting (aka “Howl from Beyond”). If you look at what Dark Ritual actually does, the mechanic isn’t particularly black. Richard came up with a very black flavor to put onto this mechanic when he was creating alpha, but you can make almost anything seem black if you flavor it as the result of a demonic ritual. We would have been content to stick with Richard’s initial instincts if we didn’t know we needed to move some stuff out, but once we concluded that we needed to move stuff out (a conclusion that Richard agreed with, by the way – he was consulted many times as we clarified both the flavor pie and the mechanics pie) this seemed like a good choice. Dark Ritual was an especially good choice to move out since we knew red was a color we needed to move some stuff into and one of the things that emerged from the flavor pie discussion was a picture of red as very passionate and “in the moment.” “Give it to me now now now,” says the new red. Card advantage be damned, red is perfectly happy to throw away the future for the sake of getting more in the present. The Dark Ritual mechanic seemed like a perfect embodiment of this philosophy, so we moved it over.

Howl from Beyond was similar in that it had a black flavor, but wasn’t a particularly black mechanic. Howl from Beyond is really just the instant-speed version of the fire-breathing ability that has been a staple of red since the very beginning. It’s also another mechanic that uses up a resource to gain an advantage right now that won’t help out in the future. Into red it went…

Those were the two biggest changes we made to black, but we did also spend considerable time attempting to clarify several mechanics, especially as we cleaned up the differences between black and red. For example, we have historically used “must attack” and “can’t block” as drawbacks on both red creatures and black creatures. However, if you think about what these drawbacks represent, it becomes clear that “must attack each turn if able” is a very red ability. Red creatures can’t help themselves, they just go charging into battle, so overwhelmed by the passion of the moment that they can’t even see the Troll Ascetic licking his chops on the other side of the battlefield. Meanwhile “can’t block” is inherently a black attitude. Black creatures can’t be bothered to defend you no matter how dire the circumstances … they’re really just interested in looking out for themselves. So now we’ve divided those two drawbacks up appropriately. We think by limiting each drawback to its proper color we can introduce a little bit more flavor into the game and a little bit more distinct character to each color.

Another similarity we noticed between black and red is that both colors get creatures that are bigger than they should be for their mana cost because they have some other drawback. This isn’t something that we need to eliminate, especially since cards like Balduvian Hordes fit nicely with red’s “throw away the future for the sake of the present” flavor while cards like Grinning Demon fit nicely with black’s “deal with the devil” flavor. However, we did think it was worth clarifying so as to get the colors more distinct personalities. One thing we noticed is that red is already the #2 fatty color. It’s big hulking creature count trails only green so it didn’t really need to be the color of undercosted fatties. Going forward it will be black that is king of the “high risk/high reward” fatties. We’ve started calling cards like Phyrexian Negator “suicide fatties” and we now see them as an essential piece of what black does.

Meanwhile, some color should be the best at suicide weenies and we decided red was the most appropriate choice for that role. Cards like Jackal Pup, Rogue Elephant, and Minotaur Explorer are very red, whereas black just isn’t supposed to be a weenie color. There’s two different ways to look at this: One view is very mechanical: the game would be less interesting if you could build a good weenie rush deck out of each of the five colors, or even four of the five colors. Somebody has to be #4. The other view is very flavorful: making pacts with evil is very serious business. The costs are very high, but so are the rewards. “Demon weenie” just doesn’t sound right (while “goblin weenie horde” does). Magic is at its best when the flavor and mechanics line up together and that’s precisely what we think we’ve done here.

The other changes we made to black were pretty small. We decided that “Pestilence” flavored effects should give creatures –X/-X since dealing damage to all creatures is a very red thing. Creature reanimation remains mostly a black mechanic, though we will do the occasional resurrection spell in white when the flavor works really well. “Tutors” will continue to be spread out as appropriate, with green getting creature tutors, red getting “press your luck” tutors, black getting “pact with the devil tutors,” etc. Black is the #3 flying color, the #1 regeneration color, it can’t kill artifacts or enchantments, and of course it kept all its staples like creature destruction and hand destruction.

So that’s the current state of black. We think it’s still got plenty of cool stuff, both from a flavor point of view and a mechanical point of view, but it no longer has so much stuff that cool cards are getting squeezed out of every set.

Last Week’s Poll:

Now that the prerelease has come and gone, and the full spoiler is available for reading, what is your early impression of Darksteel?
4 – Good set 4493 39.1%
5 – Great set 3073 26.8%
3 – Decent set 2362 20.6%
2 – Mediocre set 1011 8.8%
1 – Awful set 541 4.7%
Total 11480 100.0%

Darksteel goes on sale today...

Randy may be reached at

* The message board thread that Mark’s column spawned is one of the most fascinating I’ve ever seen. Mark made some intriguing claims about morality as it relates to black (including that black is not inherently evil (or always evil) and that every color has the potential for evil) and as of this writing that thread is up to 7 pages of very intelligent debate on the nature of morality as it relates to Magic. It’s the kind of thread that reminds how much fun it is to be smart and now I want to use my soapbox to throw in a few of my own opinions:

I think several of you are misreading Nietzsche. Specially, I don’t read Nietzsche as claiming that you should ignore morality and just do whatever you want. Instead, I think Nietzsche exhorts each of us to examine morality for ourselves and make up our own minds about what code we should follow. Beyond Good and Evil is a fascinating study of the history of morality (in particular the way in which Christianity changed the fundamental measuring scale for actions and/or intentions from “Good vs Bad” to “Good vs Evil”) and the upshot in my mind is that we should attempt to move beyond the labels that we’ve inherited. The “herd” blindly follows whatever ethical tenets are handed to them (by their parents or their religion or whatever) and the way to separate yourself from the herd is not to ignore ethics, but instead to think for yourself about ethics and come up with an ethical code to live your own life by that you understand and believe in. Nietzsche’s “superman” isn’t immoral, or even amoral. Instead he has just evolved beyond “good and evil.” (Then again, this might just be what I want Nietzsche to be saying.)

I’m not saying that Nietzsche isn’t black. His philosophy is quite consistent with the color black. I just think his position is more subtle and more interesting than he was being credited for. In fact, note that my reading of Nietzsche is remarkably in tune with the way Mark explained black’s attitude: “Don’t stick any of your rules on me” says the black mage to the white mage. My reading of Nietzsche puts him over on the blue side of black, but he is still inherently selfish, which is the real essence of black.

Meanwhile I think Bart Simpson is clearly black. Bart does tend to create chaos and I can see why it’s initially tempting to call him red, but if you look more closely you see that Bart deliberately and deviously plans to create chaos because it amuses him to watch. Contrast that with Homer – the truly red Simpson – whose actions typically have no real rhyme or reason. Homer is just guided by whatever his passions tell him to do at any given moment.

One last thought, which is really just a clarification. There will never be a simple answer to the question of whether actions or intentions determine moral right-ness. In fact, this one debate has been raging for thousands of years and there are very smart people firmly entrenched on both sides of it. However, all that history is what makes this question such an interesting litmus test for the colors. When Mark said “Evil is not about beliefs but actions” he was speaking in black’s voice, of course. White insists on exactly the opposite position.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love this game?

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